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Spin: “The Death and Resurrection of Conscious Rap.”


Part one in a three part series about “conscious hip-hop.” What it did well, how it failed, and how it’s been making a comeback thanks to the Internet.

Though rap music has had its socially and politically aware side from its inception, the term is most frequently applied to artists of the late 1980s, like Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions, or early-’90s innovators like A Tribe Called Quest and others (Digable Planets, Arrested Development). But the focus here is on the underground movement that hit critical mass from 1996 forward, just as hip-hop started to become the mainstream.

Rappers as disparate as Common, Mos Def and Talib Kweli (collectively Black Star), Company Flow, Blackalicious, the Roots, Jurassic 5, the Coup, and yes, believe it or not, an early incarnation of the Black Eyed Peas, seemingly merged into a clump of what came to be termed “alternative rap”; all supposedly were doing battle with the shiny suits and corny sampling of Puff Daddy, who was in the process of overtaking “the culture.” At least that’s the conventional narrative. The real story is a more complex…

Written by Brandon

May 28th, 2011 at 11:40 pm

Posted in Common, Spin, Spin column

How Big Is Your World? Good Rap Songs.

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-Common featuring Pharrell ‘Announcement’
Click here to download ‘Announcement’
First, there was the ‘Planet Rock’/electro homage ‘Universal Mind Control’ and now there’s the Biggie-aping ‘Announcement’. That rubbery, back-and-forth guitar, Common switching up some lines but totally mimicking Biggie’s flow on ‘Just Playing (Dreams)’, as well as a quick reference to ‘Me & My Bitch’ (and a Puffy reference by Pharrell), it seems like maybe this new Common album will be some kind of hip-hop history lesson or something? The beat does a better job of sounding like an old, classic beat while retaining producer signature than Kanye’s weirdo Dilla attempts. The female “Uh!”, the guitar-sound approximation of ‘Just Playing’s bassline sound close enough to connect to the Biggie rarity, but there’s also some crazy cornball fluttering synths, and crazy marching band booms that every half-perfect, half-annoying Neptunes production has.

The rap history thing’s half cool because it’s not like Common’s saying anything interesting anymore (and he’s out-rapped by Pharrell here), but it’s annoying because this is the dude that in ‘94 was half-shitting on dudes like Biggie for ruining hip-hop, but uh, ultimately it’s sort of exciting. Still, it’s important to remember that the past two Common albums had these great singles and then were an album of boring, meandering turds, so, we’ll see, but so far, this hip-hop history concept is a good look. As usual though, ‘Invincible Summer’s already conceptually muddled because you know, it’s release date is in the fall?

-B.O.M.B ‘Over Here’
Click here to download ‘Over Here’
This song’s just no bullshit. Under three-minutes, these really tight drums, and justB.O.M.B–”Baltimore On My Back”–rapping straight-forward stuff that’s spare and direct and descriptive and nothing more or less. There’s a good mix of influences here as well. Like so many smart thugs, he owes a great deal to ‘Pac, but there’s some golden-age New York influence in his delivery and the beat–especially those Primo-ish drums–but it’s aware and internalizes more recent rap trends. The all-keyboard aspect of the beat, the purposefully simple and immediate lyrics, and the filling it all-out with ad-libs, show a relatively traditionalist rapper that didn’t turn the radio off in 1998.

This is from B.O.M.B’s ‘Testers’ EP which came out in May and sounds like what a lot of good rapper’s albums would sound like if the just cut-out all the crap and only gave you good songs. More rappers need to release EPs. For awhile, mixtapes had the casual, tossed-off effect of EPs but they got bloated or just terrible quick. The EP is an ideal introduction to a new rapper and B.O.M.B’s smart to take advantage of it as a way to release music. The other really-great song ‘Sunday’ from the EP can be found on Al Shipley’s Government Names blog. I met B.O.M.B and talked to him for a few minutes a few months ago and he just gave me a copy of his CD which you’d think is the kind of thing more rappers would do but they uh, don’t.

-Flying Lotus ‘Parisian Goldfish’
Click here to download ‘Parisian Goldfish’
Is this song based on the cowbell breakdown from New Order’s ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’? I even sent Flying Lotus a fucking MySpace message about it because it was bugging me so much. He didn’t answer. There’s a noisy, weird side of Flying Lotus’ work that should get more attention than post-Dilla/Madlib knob twiddling. The best electronic music’s all about feeling and atmosphere. It’s silly to listen to mid-tempo beats when there’s not someone rapping on them. The big joke of Lotus’ ‘Robo Tussin’ remix of ‘A Milli’ was that his weirdo synth-fart bliss-out still wasn’t as weird as Bangladesh’s original. Maybe that wasn’t the intention and Lotus is just unfairly categorized with think they’re next-level “producers” like Madlib or Prefuse 73 because ‘Parisian Goldfish’ is pretty amped-up and ready for a party. No contemplation or head-nodding to this song necessary.

Everything’s sort of maxed-out and a little full of static and squelchy and anchored by this cowbell workout break that Lotus puts every production trick over. It gets chopped-up, it awkwardly repeats, he adds more sounds over top of it, and he piles the break atop itself into a mechanical CD-skip-like repetition and then takes it away to just play the loop to glorious effect a minute and fifty second or so in.

-ABN (Z-Ro & Trae) ‘Still Throwed’
Click here to download ‘Still Throwed’
Imagine ‘Get Throwed’ from Bun B’s ‘Trill’ but with Z-Ro doing more than the hook and Trae rapping instead of Pimp C, Jay-Z, and Jeezy and then some Linkin Park-ish keyboards all over it. Between this and the Linkin Park-ish ‘Shoot Me Down’ from ‘Tha Carter 3′–but pretending Busta’s ‘We Made It’ never existed–maybe Linkin Park are sort of good? Don’t front on that ‘Numb/Encore’ “song” either. This song’s interesting in contrast with the ‘Trill’ version in the sense that everything’s just down a few notches.

The chugging guitars are mixed lower, and the stoned, bubbling electronics of the original no longer flutter in the background, they’re slowed-down but louder and darker. ‘Get Throwed’ was a party song about getting high, ‘Still Throwed’ is a few years later, doing the same thing and it not being fun anymore…which is pretty much what every Z-Ro and Trae song’s about. The key lyric here is Z-Ro’s list of “same old”s, especially “strippers at the club dancing on the same old poles”. It’s not a surprise coming from Z-Ro, but this sense of being just as bored and disinterested by those three big, stupid hip-hop ideals of cool and power (drug dealers, girl, strip clubs) is really smart and honest. It’s like when he raps about treating lesbians and gay dudes properly on ‘T.H.U.G’. I’ve never been that into Trae and next to Z-Ro especially, Trae’s gruff voice sounds jarring.

-Ratatat ‘Black Heroes’
Click here to download ‘Black Heroes’
Ratatat’s schtick is pretty simple: Make every instrument sound like a synth or just be a synth, harmonize that shit, and make it sound like the music in a sad part of a video game. The closer of their latest album ‘LP3′ is the particularly affecting ‘Black Heroes’ and it really does bring up the feeling of like, a film-strip you’d watch in history class about the contributions of African-Americans. Imagine poorly-pencilled sketches of Marcus Garvey and Rosa Parks moving past to the tune of this song. This YouTuber had the right idea accompanying the song to an image of the Tuskegee Airmen. I think ‘Black Heroes’ is trying to get at like the pure immediate sense of the triumph of history and victory that you can get into when you’re in like 3rd grade and Howard Zinn doesn’t mean anything yet.

Because of their Brooklyn roots and love of all things electronic and video gamey, Ratatat are often seeen as ironists but there’s really nothing ironic or funny about their music. They use all those sounds to move towards some weird, off-kilter sense of warmth and sincerity. These are kids who cried at the ending to Adventures of Lolo 2 and just took the beauty of electronics for granted. They’re way beyond the played-out Kraftwerk-ian sense of “we’re all mechanical and without emotions” and electronics will comment on that trope; it’s sort of the same thing T-Pain’s trying to do or Kanye does on Jeezy’s ‘Put On’.

Written by Brandon

July 29th, 2008 at 7:15 pm

Biographical Dictionary of Rap Entry: Common

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No matter what kind of rap fan I’m talking to, I end up having to qualify my thoughts on Common. See, if they are my kind of rap fan, the knee-jerk haters of the so-called “conscious” set that make jokes about Common eating granola, then I gotta remind them of just how fucking good early Common could be. If they are a conscious rap fan who really thinks its cool that Common eats granola, out comes my protracted rant about how everything from his persona to his politics is muddled beyond comprehension and he’s made himself nothing more than the go-to for everyone from “heads” to kinda fat Jewish girls that like “some” hip-hop.

Resurrection is an absolute masterpiece, one of the five or so best rap albums ever. Way better than Illmatic, which came out the same year and in my head, the albums forever linked and just like Illmatic (and so many other rap debuts), it’s an album that gives off the feeling of totally being inside the head of the rapper; you know, them saying the shit they wanted to say and before labels or their own fucking “creativity” screwed everything up. The “sometimes, sometimes…” break on ‘Thisisme’ makes me cry every time I hear it. Resurrection is a portrait of Common, warts and all, bad punchlines and on-point rapping and all, and features plenty of insight into one thing and one thing only: Common. He drops great confessions that are decidedly un-hip-hop without being purposefully un-hip-hop, just real: “I didn’t grow up po’ po’/but once you get grown and out on your own/Bills upon bills upon bills is what you have.” Resurrection is pretty much the bougie rap album Common would claim to be making from Like Water For Choclate to the present time. His problems, not enough money, too much fast-food and beer, have as much to do with those kinda fat “some hip-hop”-liking girls I mentioned earlier as they do with someone deep “in the struggle”.

There’s also something incredibly male and even masculine about Resurrection; the easy place to start is ‘I Used to Love H.E.R’ which is oft-cited as being you know a little closed-minded about what girls (metaphor or not) can do with their vaginas. Common comes through in that the album feels and sounds alienated in a way that girls just never really are; it’s a remarkable literature-caliber portrayal of a slightly educated twentysomething (Nirvana who?). On the album, Common’s aware of his problems and wants to fix them but is half-scared and half-lazy and half-enjoying being a fuckup so it’s all a messy loop of living rapped over messy-but-clean jazz and keyboard loops. He’s also weirdly un-ironic and not self-aware like a lot of confused twentysomething dudes (yes face it, Common is basically a dude); only a rapper with little irony or little interest in proofreading would not only rap a line like “and you could tell/By the way her titties hung” but end the verse with it!

At the same time, the album is a jarring transition from Can I Borrow a Dollar? (a great title by the way). No I.D went from pretty ill slightly wiser boom-bap to beats that move and gel together through the subtlest of keyboard touches and other genius sonic detail. Meanwhile, Common calms it down a little and makes the perfect use of his perpetually stuffed-up-like-he’s-got-a-cold flow. Many look back and like to joke or at least reference stuff like ‘Heidi Hoe’ to describe just how different he was when he first spit, but Common is the same dumbass he’s always been. His most winning aspect is a penchant for emotionally honest details that never seem cloying and his worst aspect is the one he’s been totally working-on for more than a decade: his political and social observations (if they can even be called that). It doesn’t surprise me that he dropped out of college because he’s exactly the kind of guy that would go and then drop out and then talk about how he didn’t need it and how (as he says on Resurrection) “I went to school for fourteen years and my best teacher was experience”; Common’s something of a dullard, really.

It’s fun to make fun of Electric Circus’ or the so clichéd they literally mean nothing stuff on Finding Forever (love is not a mystery…it’s everything?) but they are already there on Resurrection when he says junk like “I hope you wake up in time for the revolution/Or you gonna be like/I can’t believe it, I got shot!” and it works on that album because the whole concept behind it is a confused young guy just being real. It’s the same joyful ignorance found on the first N.W.A record (no really, it is); a decade later however, you realize he hasn’t learned much of anything about anything but he thinks he’s got the world figured out…his supposed resurgence with the help of Kanye West is highly overrated and Be and Finding Forever being celebrated shows just how far the Lonnie Lyn has fallen.

Written by Brandon

November 30th, 2007 at 11:55 am

Fiasco-Gate and Nine Other Times When "Smart" Rappers Schooled Themselves

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I was pretty surprised when I finally caught Lupe’s little mess-up at the Vh1 ‘Hip-Hop Honors’ and it was just that, a little mess-up. He screws up a few lines, laughs off the fuck-up and tries to recover on ‘Scenario’. Of course, it was Lupe’s obnoxious damage control which turned a faux-pas into a sincere but misguided attempt at canon dissection and then devolved into some Andy Kaufman “I’ll sue you all” type shit. There’s plenty to dislike about Lupe, he’s always seemed a bit insincere and trend-grabbing. How that older song he recorded about selling-crack didn’t demolish his integrity, I’m not sure. That too was an example of poor damage control, as it took rap nerds to “uncover” the track and when they did, rather than just address it honestly, Lupe used it as an example of how “bad” he wanted a rap contract, which still sort of deflects its sell-out connotations. Dude’s a whiner and pussy and it’s fun to see him get shit because he’s the classic intellectual-type who dishes it out, in condescending songs like ‘Dumb It Down’ or the legendarily obnoxious verse on ‘Daydreamin’ and then punks-out when a bunch of overzealous diehards get offended because he stumbled through their gospel.I’d be lying if I didn’t sort of relish the sequence of events.

Because I’m as full of shit as the next guy, I spend time babbling about those self-satisfied “conscious” rap fans even as I self-satisfyingly make fun of them. The only cliche more grotesque than “conscious” rappers that are boring and not saying anything new would be people like me complaining about those rappers for being boring and not saying anything new. Yet, it’s more than that, some of my self-satisfied anger comes from disappointment, the way these high-minded type rappers continually screw-up, fuck over their fans, or just embarrass themselves. It is events like “Fiascogate”, over the past decade or so that increasingly distanced me from giving political-type rappers any interest as they, not only disappoint musically (like most rappers) but can’t even maintain their ideals…and of course, when they do sell-out those ideals, it’s the Jew-run industry that forced them to sell-out or this damned system of Capitalism…

Below are the ones that have really stuck with me. I’m an asshole fan like the rest, so sometimes my disappointment is premature or it took me awhile to understand. Common’s falling-off musically, although depressing just sort of makes sense, especially when I get some real-life experience in me and while in 1999, I bitched about Q-Tip’s selling-out with ‘Vivrant Thing’, I get it now, it’s just a good fucking song. Others examples however, still sort of hurt…it’s an autobiography of disappointment!

10. Lupe’s Lame Damage Control Over Some Forgotten Lyrics
I already talked about this above but let’s quickly talk about just the idea of “Fiasco-gate”. A lot of people make sure to mock the term but it’s clearly used ironically by everybody. It’s also funny in a linguistic way because it’s basically like calling something “Gate-gate” or “Fiasco-fiasco”…but yeah, Lupe’s lame not because he screwed up some lyrics or doesn’t know about Tribe, but because the whole thing seems offensive to his fans and fellow musicians. Usually, I don’t care about what rappers do or say but when they have defined themselves as a healthy alternative to crack-rap and dumbed-down pop-rap, you expect them to handle themselves a little fucking better.

9. Kanye West’s ‘Late Registration’
This entry explains it well and for me, on a nerdy, homo personal level, ‘Late Registration’ was a huge disappointment, but I put it at 9 because Kanye, unlike many others on this list, was smart enough to not make too many grand statements about this or that, so when he made an album that sounds like it was designed for Rolling Stone and TIME magazine to celebrate, it’s more annoying than hypocritical.

8. Stones Throw’s Continued Raping of Dilla’s Corpse
While I appreciate the re-release of ‘Ruff Draft’ a whole lot, I’m nothing but annoyed by this “independent” label’s exploitation of the dude. This is a little too fresh in my mind for me to have any real sense of perspective, but those pathetic approximations of ‘Donuts’ made by Madlib and now his little brother Oh No and the occasional appearance of a bunch of rappers crappily rhyming over a Dilla beat really kind of hurts. It is especially frustrating because it is one more way that the independents suck almost as much as the majors. Dilla is Stones Throw’s meal-ticket and they are slowly milking it for all it’s worth. No one else on that shitty label can really do anything except for MF Doom and he’s been too lazy to rap properly in years, in part because of Stones Throw’s partnering up with garbage like Adult Swim (oh-so indie guys…) which adds so many levels of novelty, the music no longer needs to be listenable.

7. Little Brother’s ‘The Minstrel Show’
‘The Listening’ was pretty exciting as far as feeling and sounding like those old Native Tongues albums but it was not as derivative as many said. It was only after ‘The Minstrel Show’ that Little Brother really began to look like humor-less jerkoffs, even though the album was supposed to be a satirical look at modern hip-hop imagery. The album’s jokes never penetrated because they were caught-up in a haze of condescension and obviousness.

6. Cee-Lo’s Involvement with Gnarls Barkley
Cee-Lo can be (or was) way more of a political rapper than any of the explicitly political rappers out there or Kanye “I’m kinda political and know a bit about the C.I.A’s involvement in the cocaine trade” West. Cee-Lo has certainly devolved since Goodie Mob’s genius mix of political anger and empathy, but Gnarls Barkley is another level of bullshit. Noz perfectly explains it here but I’ll add a few thoughts…By becoming part of something as terrible as Gnarls Barkley, it has the ability of somewhat altering Goodie Mob’s message or making one feel a little less hopeful about ‘Soul Food’s real-life viability. Is there anything worse than retroactively rendering your own message meaningless?

5. Talib Kweli’s ‘Beautiful Struggle’
I’m not concerned with Kweli’s inability to stay on-beat or a bunch of other stuff, because Black Star, ‘Reflection Eternal’, and ‘Quality’ were pretty fucking good. When the formulaic ‘Beautiful Struggle’ came out, it highlighted all of Kweli’s problems and none of his strengths. On ‘Quality’ in particular, he had something resembling a connection to popularity without sounding too pandering but on ‘Beautiful Struggle’, he just tries to recreate his previous album’s successful songs. ‘Get By’ becomes ‘I Tried’ and he grabs the Neptunes for a shitty, super-obvious anti-drugs tale. The worst part for me, is that it’s a classic manipulation of the fans. Kweli sells-out halfway, as to not alienate anybody but hopefully get a hit.

4. Common Drops Out of the ‘Touch the Sky’ tour to Be in Some Post-Tarantino Bullshit
This one is more hilarious than anything else. Common seems to have a genuine hit and popular album and is going on-tour with another smart, super-popular rapper- it sounds like the perfect reaction against Jeezy, et. al- and Common drops out to act in some stupid-ass flashy crime movie like ‘Smoking Aces’; you know the movie’s hack when it’s a rip-off of Guy Ritchie who is a Tarantino rip-off himself. It just makes anybody wonder what a man of the people like Common really cares about when he drops out of a tour to pursue some Hollywood cash.

3. Mos Def Releases ‘True Magic’ without Artwork
I don’t know what kind of statement this is supposed to be if any, but it’s big “fuck you” to your fans, not your record label or whoever else. Similar to Common or even Kweli’s half-hearted attempts at selling-out, it’s really fun when rappers that speak out against Capitalism and Tall Israeli’s are too concerned with record label problems to drop a real album with real packaging This, coupled with Mos’ focus on acting in bad Hollywood movies, should totally ruin anything else he ever has to say. Also see ‘Dollar Day’ which takes Juvenile’s ‘Nolia Clap’, a song that simply through regionalism and context is implicitly political and making it way-too explicitly political.

2. Chuck D’s book ‘Fight the Power’
Oh boy, Chuck D’s book about “rap race, and reality” exposes him as the ill-informed sloganeering idiot I couldn’t admit he was until a year or two ago. It puts him in-line with other “inspirational” political guys that talk out of their ass (Bob Marley, Joe Strummer, Bob Dylan, etc.), which he may or may not like to hear (it seems, depending on the page, Chuck’s a hardcore racist or a classic liberal democrat). His anger might be appealing and even inspiring if it felt at all real or earned as it did for the black radicals from which he steals. As you’re reading, it’s all that you’ve heard before and probably agree with, but actually presented less-articulately with no semblance of a real solution!

1. Common Does a Coke Ad with Mya
I don’t know why this one killed me so much but I guess around 2002 or so, a Pepsi commercial with Common rapping in a cool club as Mya sang, started popping up on television and worse, before movie trailers at your local multiplex. Again, it’s annoying because Common presents himself a some paragon of virtue and integrity but that’s all obvious. What really hurt about this one was, that it involved rapping and the slogan was something invoking real-ness. Depressing. Let’s not also forget the song was some messed-up interpolation of ‘Compared to What’ which I always connect to Roberta Flack.

Other very recent fiascos (potential gates?) that are genuinely depressing: Ghostface dropping an album the same fucking day as the Wu, The crossover/grab for street cred hustle that is ‘American Gangster’, KRS-One’s support of 50 Cent over Kanye West, Nas calling his album “Nigga” and think he’s making some kind of statement…

Written by Brandon

October 16th, 2007 at 4:50 am

Baltimore City Paper Article: UGK and Common Review

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My first article in-print! I’m excited! Thanks to Ray and Tom. If you live in the Baltimore area, the City Paper is free and available all over the place. I’ll probably run out and get it and cut it out and keep it (no seriously, I will!)…

“Common’s Finding Forever and UGK’s Underground Kingz are “albums” in the true sense of the word: a group of consistent, thematically cohesive songs. This fact alone elevates both above most of the year’s rap releases, but while Common coasts by on his consciousness, UGK sounds dissatisfied with delivering product and offers something more than meeting expectations.”

I ignored it to not sound ungrateful and because it ultimately doesn’t matter, but the online version is a little messed-up. It’s labeled only as a review of UGK, so when I start talking about Common, it seems kind of weird. The print version is properly labeled and gets the last name right too (Jew-BERG)…

Written by Brandon

September 12th, 2007 at 3:25 pm

Posted in City Paper, Common, UGK